Psssst! She killed her grandfather.


Some months ago, I was squished in the backseat of a Lyfft with several other women, trekking back to Palo Alto after a San Francisco Middlebrook salon. One of the women wedged among us that night was Mary Felstiner, the preeminent biographer of the German Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon, who died at Auschwitz in 1943. And so she told us in the car the dark postscript to Salomon’s life story: the letter hidden for decades in which she describes her murder of her grandfather. I thought this was an insider’s speculation, and it was, but not now, and not at the time I heard the story on the long road back to Palo Alto. The confessional letter is included in a new edition of Salomon’s complete work, Leben? oder Theater? Ein Singespiel (Life? or Theatre? A Musical Play) published last fall. Like the Taschen book, it celebrates the centennial of Salomon’s birth last year.

As I wrote last month, her masterpiece, Life? or Theatre?, may be the first graphic novel. It includes 1,299 gouaches, 340 transparent overlays of text, and a narrative of 32K words. In the words of Toni Bentley writing in the New Yorker: “It is a work of mesmerizing power and astonishing ambition. Placed side by side, the ten-by-thirteen-inch paintings would reach the length of three New York City blocks … its uncategorizable nature is another reason why she has been left out of the canon of modern art, and seen only on the periphery of other genres into which she dipped her brush: German Expressionism, autobiography, memoir, operetta, play, and, now, murder mystery”:


In February, 1943, eight months before she was murdered in Auschwitz, the German painter Charlotte Salomon killed her grandfather. Salomon’s grandparents, like many Jews, had fled Germany in the mid-nineteen-thirties, with a stash of “morphine, opium, and Veronal” to use “when their money ran out.” But Salomon’s crime that morning was not a mercy killing to save the old man from the Nazis; this was entirely personal. It was Herr Doktor Lüdwig Grünwald, not “Herr Hitler,” who, Salomon wrote, “symbolized for me the people I had to resist.” And resist she did. She documented the event in real time, in a thirty-five-page letter, most of which has only recently come to light. “I knew where the poison was,” Salomon wrote. “It is acting as I write. Perhaps he is already dead now. Forgive me.” Salomon also describes how she drew a portrait of her grandfather as he expired in front of her, from the “Veronal omelette” she had cooked for him. The ink drawing of a distinguished, wizened man—his head slumped inside the collar of his bathrobe, his eyes closed, his mouth a thin slit nesting inside his voluminous beard—survives.

Painting in the garden at Villefranche-sur-Mer, ca. 1939

Salomon’s letter is addressed, repeatedly, to her “beloved” Alfred Wolfsohn, for whom she created her work. He never received the missive. Nineteen pages of Salomon’s “confession,” as she called it, were concealed by her family for more than sixty years, the murder excised. Fragments of the missing letter were first made public in the voice-over of a 2011 Dutch documentary by the filmmaker Frans Weisz. Salomon’s stepmother had shown him the pages, written in capital letters painted in watercolor, in 1975, and allowed him to copy the text, but, as requested, he had kept them secret for decades.

I hesitated to tell this story in my earlier post, which told of her survival in a family of suicides … significantly, the women around her maternal grandfather, his wife and two daughters (one of them Salomon’s mother, and the other her namesake aunt), killed themselves. She loathed him. How does one casually drop this sort of story in a blogpost? How does one integrate it into one’s thinking of her as an artist?

In a wicked twist of fate, Salomon’s French visa depended on her being her grandfather’s caretaker, so she returned to the Nice apartment where he was living and where, several months later, she poisoned him. “the theatre is dead!” she wrote in her confession as he was dying, a declaration whose resounding Nietzchean echo appears to answer the very question she posed in the title of Life? or Theatre? With this murder, Salomon defied her “inclination to despair and to dying” and chose life.

Read the New Yorker story here. You must.

Postscript on 7/13: Salomon’s preeminent biographer, Mary Felstiner, responds here.

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